American Catholics & Peace: A Progress Report
June 1987Gordon C. Zahn
Gordon C. Zahn is National Director of the Pax Christi USA Center on Conscience and War in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, he was a conscientious objector during World War II and served at Civilian Public Service camps during the war period. The author of numerous books, his now classic In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jaegerstaetter has recently been reissued.
More than 10 years ago I offered a personal assessment of "the future of the Catholic peace movement" (Commonweal, Dec. 28, 1973), and it seems appropriate to return to that theme today. How far have we come? Perhaps more to the point, how far have we yet to go to reach that true and lasting peace to which all professing Christians are called? If, as I will suggest, the record of the past decade is positive and promising on balance, it would be disastrous to ignore the more negative aspects which, if not recognized and dealt with, are almost certain to undo the gains made.
When that article appeared the war in Vietnam was ending. I warned then that the foreign policies and power alignments which led to that ignoble adventure were "almost certain to produce other Vietnams' in Latin America and elsewhere." This could still turn out to be the case. Now as then, it is "the task of an alert and effective peace movement to expose this danger and its sources and to promote...new policies and priorities...." Happily, the effort is being made, even though its effectiveness has been lessened by the resurgence of nationalistic fervor, which, if not checked, might yet rewrite and even "Rambo-ize" that extremely sordid episode in this nation's history.
That danger would not be so great had another suggestion in that earlier article been heeded. It was viewed as a matter of highest priority for the peace movement to insist on an objective after-the-fact application of "just war" criteria to that war, leading to a formal judgment regarding that war's morality - or immorality. This was not done, though one suspects few theologians would dare argue today that those criteria were taken into account by our government, much less observed. Thus Vietnam has joined all other wars fought over the 15 centuries in which the theory of just war has been extant as further evidence of that theory's manifest irrelevance. More recent proof, if needed, has been provided by Grenada. Can anyone honestly maintain that the limiting conditions of "just war" - e.g., last resort? proportionality? - received any consideration at all in the Reagan Administration's decision to invade that hapless island?
I consider it a matter of scandal that so many of those making military decisions and planning for new and even more immoral wars are professedly sincere Catholics who nevertheless have given little or no thought to the moral limits imposed by the teachings of the Catholic Church. To me, it is an even graver scandal to find certain theologians devoting their talents to sustaining the illusion (or delusion?) that the violence and destructiveness of modern war can somehow be reconciled with the teachings and example of Christ and his earliest followers.
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